Oligarch's high hopes of being president

Is Mikhail Prokhorov a stooge candidate backed by the Kremlin or a real rival to Vladimir Putin? Shaun Walker joins the 6ft 8in candiate for the campaign launch

Mikhail Prokhorov strode into the hall to a ripple of polite applause, his 6ft 8in- frame clad in a sharp suit and magenta tie. Russia's third-richest man was until recently most famous for his playboy lifestyle and his ownership of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Now, he wants to be the next president of Russia.

A wildcard candidate in the upcoming elections, Mr Prokhorov has promised to target the "active minority" of Russians, especially those who came on to the streets in December to protest against rigged parliamentary elections and the planned return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency. The gangly oligarch will stand for president against Mr Putin on 4 March, in a race that, realistically, he has no chance of winning. He has also been forced to make repeated denials that he is a "stooge" candidate; a carefully managed critic who can be used to channel some of the discontent from the protest movement in a manner safe for the Kremlin.

Over the weekend, he began his presidential campaign in the city of Kazan, at a meeting with the city's young people, and for the first time shared the full details of his manifesto. Together, the people in the hall were the embodiment of the new middle-class that has sprung up in Russia during the oil boom of the past decade, not just in Moscow but also in provincial centres like Kazan, a city of about a million inhabitants 400 miles east of the Russian capital.

More than 2,000 people turned out to meet the oligarch, ranging from acne-ridden geeks with wispy moustaches to cardigan-wearing hipsters. Kazan now has shiny new shopping malls and international hotel chains, there are direct flights to Frankfurt and Istanbul, and the local football team, Rubin Kazan, have played several seasons in the Champions League. But no longer only satisfied with increased economic possibilities, many young people have become more politically active since last month's elections.

Mr Prokhorov opened with his life story, a rags-to-riches yarn typical of Russia's oligarch class. Growing up, he said, his family had no car, no country house and lived five people to a tiny apartment. Despite the fact that he would later become one of the richest people in the world, and gain a reputation for excess even amid the milieu of Russia's notoriously profligate oligarchs, he claimed that the most important money for him was the very first roubles that he made. "The best purchase I ever made was my first pair of jeans, which I still wear sometimes," he said.

Most of what he says policy-wise sounds eminently sensible, and it certainly resonated with the audience. Some of it sounded rather vague ("we need to build new roads, ports, railway stations") but much of it consisted of concrete policy steps designed to appeal directly to disaffected young Russians. Perhaps the biggest cheer of the event came when he said he would end conscription to the army. Most wealthy Russians manage to wiggle out of military service, but the difficult conditions and widespread "hazing" or harassment of conscripts are a shadow that hangs over young Russian men as they grow up.

The contender also promises to do more to promote visa-free travel for Russians to the European Union, to make life easier for start-up businesses, and to restore confidence in the police. He would raise taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and luxury items, while lowering tax for business.

By the end of the two-hour session, the lukewarm applause had become more heartfelt. There was a sense that Mr Prokhorov had genuinely impressed the crowd. Of 20 random people questioned by The Independent leaving the event, 17 said that they would vote for the oligarch.

"I like that he says concrete things about concrete problems, and that he says people should work for themselves," said 22-year-old student Denis.

"Other parties are forever promising different things from the state, but he is saying, if you work hard, you will get your rewards, and the state and police will not bother you."

Alyona Parkhomenko, a 22-year-old start-up businesswoman, said she signed up to watch Mr Prokhorov speak after reading about the event on an online social network. "I have started following politics closely, and have been to all the opposition rallies in Kazan," she says. "Until today, I wasn't sure who I was going to vote for, but this has persuaded me, I'll vote for Prokhorov."

Mr Putin's core demographic remains those Russians who are not online, and get their news from the state-controlled television. One of the young people in Kazan asked Mr Prokhorov how he would get his message to a wider audience. "The majority of people don't know who you are – those people who are offline, who don't use the internet," said the questioner. "They only watch the television, and we all know what rubbish is on the television. How will you get your message across to them?"

Mr Prokhorov replied that he will send out teams of volunteers to inform people of his programme. But there have been suggestions that the oligarch does not want to be too successful. He has tried almost perversely hard to avoid direct criticism of Mr Putin, even while eviscerating the political system built by the Russian Prime Minister. When asked whether he suspected Mr Putin was personally corrupt, he said that "suspicion is best left to women", and he has refused to take advantage of the growing anti-Putin sentiment among segments of the population.

Such reticence has led to further doubt about the genuineness of his bid. When asked by The Independent in Kazan why he was so reluctant to criticise Mr Putin, he said he did not want to base his campaign on negativity. "It's not only Putin, we are all guilty," he said. "Putin has pluses and minuses... On the whole I agree with the things that were said on Bolotnaya and Sakharova [the two big Moscow protests] but why should I always repeat this?"

Russian magazine The New Times has even quoted a source close to Mr Prokhorov saying that the oligarch decided to stand only after receiving a phone call directly from Mr Putin asking him to do so. The clearest sign that Mr Prokhorov's campaign has the blessing of the Kremlin, at least tacitly, came yesterday when his application to join the ballot was tentatively approved by the Russian Central Election Commission, while Grigory Yavlinsky, from the liberal party Yabloko, was denied registration.

"It's clear that Prokhorov supports Putin in one way or another," said political analyst Evgeny Minchenko. The oligarch himself claims that his goal is to make it to a second round run-off with Mr Putin, something that the current opinion polls, which give him just a few miserly per cent of the votes, suggest is unlikely. It is possible that his ultimate goal is to be a reformist prime minister under a Putin presidency, but winning the presidency is a highly unlikely outcome.



1965 Born in Moscow

1983-85 Serves in the Soviet Army

1993 Sets up Oneksim bank, his main investment vehicle

2001 Chairman of Norilsk Nickel, one of the world's largest metal firms.

2007 Arrested by French police on suspicion of flying in prostitutes for lavish New Year party. Charges later dropped, police apologise.

2009 Buys New Jersey Nets basketball team

June 2011 Becomes head of Right Cause, a new political party. Steps down after claiming interference from Kremlin.

December 2011 Announces that he will run for President

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sir David Attenborough
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Interface Developer - HTML, CSS, JS

£17000 - £23750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Liverpool based international...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness